Pet Connection: Coming to terms with animal-based phrases

Have you ever thought about how many words and phrases we use every day that come straight from the horse’s mouth? Expressions that are the cat’s meow? You might even say our language has gone to the dogs.

Animal-related terms are delightfully descriptive. Some are built upon animal characteristics – eagle-eyed, bird-brained, dog-eared – irrespective of accuracy (birds are actually pretty darn smart). Others come to us from languages such as Greek, Latin or Icelandic. Learning about their origins is fascinating. Here are some fun facts about pet phrases and how they came to be.

▪  “Animal attraction.” A reference nowadays to strongly attractive personal charm, this phrase harks back (itself a phrase used in hunting with hounds) to the 18th century, when Franz Mesmer coined the term “animal magnetism” to describe his theory of an invisible natural force that could play a role in healing and other physical effects.

▪  Other words describe our affinity for certain animals. An ailurophile is a person who loves cats. It comes from the Greek words “ailouros,” meaning cat, and “philos,” meaning loving. While people have been crazy for cats for more than 5,000 years, this term is relatively new, with its first known use in 1914. Dog-lovers have their own distinctive description, also from ancient Greek. They are cynophilists, or cynophiles.

▪  Collective terms. You’re probably familiar with the term “litter” referring to a group of kittens, but did you know that they can also be called a “kindle”? The word comes from Middle English “kindlen” and means “to give birth.” The first-known use of the phrase occurs in the 15th-century “Book of St. Albans” as “a kyndyll of yong Cattis.” There are many different collective, or group, names for dogs, most of them related to hunting. These are called “terms of venery” and include “a mute of hounds,” from the Old French “meute,” meaning “pack” or “kennel”; “a leash of greyhounds”; and “a couple of spaniels.” In modern times, dog-loving wordsmiths have invented their own fanciful collective terms for specific breeds, drawing on wit and word play: a waddle of Pekingese, a snobbery of salukis, a rumble of rottweilers, a snap of whippets, a grin of Japanese chin, a bounce of beardies, a shiver of Chihuahuas. I’m partial to a court of Cavaliers, myself.

▪  “Hair of the dog.” Did your English teacher tell you that humans have hair while dogs and cats have fur? Technically, there’s no real difference. It’s all made of a protein called keratin. The ground hairs – soft, insulating fur – and the coarser protective guard hairs on pets are considered fur. The hair on your head has a texture that’s somewhere in between ground and guard hairs, so it’s not wrong to describe pets as having hair. But why do we call for “hair of the dog” the morning after a night on the town? The idea of taking a nip of the same alcoholic libation that gave you a hangover dates at least to the 16th century, when John Heywood wrote in “Proverbs” (1546): “I pray thee let me and my fellow have a haire of the dog that bit us last night.” The concept is related to the even older folk remedy of placing the burnt hair of a dog who had bitten someone on the wound, according to Christine Ammer in her book “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs.”

▪  “Chowhound.” I think most of us who have dogs understand why this term is applied to enthusiastic eaters. It was also the title of a 1951 Looney Tunes animated short featuring a bulldog always in search of a meal. He probably would have enjoyed a hush puppy, a fried cornmeal cake supposedly named because it was tossed to noisy hounds with the admonition, “Hush, puppy!” Lucky dogs!

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books.